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PERSPECTIVE ON CHINA : Fix America's Chinatowns First : The U.S. should examine its own human-rights record before wielding it as a weapon in determining trade status.

May 15, 1994|RUSSELL R. MILLER | Russell R. Miller is chairman of an insurance industry specialty investment bank. His family links to Asia include a governor general of Hong Kong; his grandfather was instrumental, at the turn of the century, in bringing peace to warring factions in San Francisco's Chinatown

San Francisco is fast becoming the first large America city with an Asian majority. Its 35% Asian population by the end of the decade will exceed 50%. In the heart of San Francisco, on Vallejo Street, are three-story wooden-frame buildings occupied by elderly Americans of Chinese descent whose human rights are being violated every day. The fragile, elderly poor are packed into "standing room only" rooms, with a bed, bureau and a pole for hanging laundry. The tenants spend nearly all their income on rent. They have minimal health service. They fear leaving the buildings because of constant and unmerciful street crime. These people have unfulfilled human rights.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a Californian, says that China will not have most-favored-nation status extended this summer until "it provides concrete assurances" in a number of human-rights areas. The Clinton Administration thinks it knows how 1.2 billion Chinese people should arrange themselves as a nation-state. They feel it is a moral imperative to hurt China if it doesn't embrace today's values of our 250-year-old republic. If you want to sell to us, you must meet our moral standards.

These arguments are reminiscent of the late 19th-Century traders from Western Europe and the United States who thought it was their right to force open the ports of China for their goods, which in those days included Indian poppies. Today, China is being forced to accept the new opium of misplaced values that has resulted in a society torn by guns, gangs and graffiti.

Which moral standards should China emulate? Those that the California Legislature passed long ago as the Chinese Exclusion Act? Those that jailed our California citizens of Japanese descent during the war and confiscated their farms and homes? Those that allowed California miners to slaughter Asian railroad workers solely because they were beginning to prosper? And what do we say to their descendants who were discriminated against in the admission policies of the University of California? Are they the standards of the San Francisco school board that long ago forbade Asian students to sit in a classroom with Europeans or the same school system that 50 years later denied credit to the Chinese students unless they attended public schools instead of successful Chinese schools?

How would Americans have felt in the 1940s if China had set as a condition of being our ally in World War II that America had to desegregate the South, give equal opportunity to blacks and integrate the armed forces? How would the United States have responded in the '60s if China had placed as a condition for better relations that Martin Luther King be released from the Birmingham jail?

Premier Li Peng, meeting with Secretary Christopher, said, "China and the United States have different concepts regarding human rights." He said that the progress expected from a developed country will be different from that of a developing country. Western values place the individual as the keystone of society. Asian societies place the general welfare of its members above that of the individual. Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed put it succinctly when he said that it seems that America liberates the individual while imprisoning society. American values have failed in their eyes, so why insist on imposing them on others?

Well, has China done anything positive lately? It affirmed its support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; opened talks with the International Committee of the Red Cross to allow access to Chinese prisons; gave the State Department an accounting of 235 prisoners; helped in ending the war in Cambodia; signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and, so far, has not obstructed the United States in its U.N. efforts to bring some rational behavior from North Korea.

Instead of the Administration trying to change China, how about just Chinatown? Defend the human rights of the elderly on Vallejo Street by ensuring them a decent place to live, freedom from physical harm and an education system in which their grandchildren learn how to prosper rather than being shot dead by drug-numbed 15-year-olds.

We need to be very careful--China may insist that we observe human rights for our own people or they won't trade with us.

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